Some thoughts on the pro-EU march in London – 23 March 2019



Observations from the dragon’s perch as a million marchers filed past us.

Because there were lots of marchers.

Lots and lots and lots…

…and those timelapse videos I filmed and produced only captured three hours of marching. There was another hour and a half I could have filmed had I had spare batteries.

For the purposes of this post, I’m ***not*** going to cover the impact it may/may not have on the events of the next few days or few weeks. I’ll leave that for others. (So please don’t post comments about the merits of either side, or whether you think your side is the best thing to happen to the country since sliced bread was invented, or what insults you can throw at your political opponents – they’ll be zapped and ignored).

I’m more interested in the experiences of the participants on the day, and what impact this may or may not have in the distant future – i.e. once the summer has been and gone.

We are living in very tense political times

And unfortunately these times seem to include the sending of horrible threats to innocent people. When you start a petition and over 4million people sign it speaks volumes – but the sending of threats to the petition starter? Really?

I wouldn’t blame anyone for not wanting to get involved in party politics in an atmosphere like this. It’s utterly toxic. Credit to anyone standing for election to help make their communities better places to live in the face of such threats and an intimidating atmosphere.

This was not a march of ‘the usual suspects’

I’ve been to more than a few over the years – whether at University, through to the Iraq War March, to the anti-austerity marches, all the way through to the present day. While a number of groups had come prepared with mass-produced placards, these seemed few and far between – or rather they appeared in clumps. There were noticeably few trade union-related ‘corporate’ placards – individual branches bringing their own banners – some of them incredibly ornate & denoting a long tradition of marching and protesting. Furthermore, there was no visible far-left presence – perhaps reflected by the campaigns by more than a few of them to support leaving the EU but on a left wing platform.

Most of the banners and placards that I saw were home-made. This indicates two things. The first is that lots of people participating were not part of a heavily disciplined and trained campaigning unit – eg with identikit campaign t-shirts and so on. (Although many of these were on sale and purchased by many people – local history people please make sure samples of these are deposited in your local museums and archives!) The second is independence of thought and action. I got the sense that more than a few would find themselves alienated by very tribal politics. In which case how do those inside political parties avoid alienating those who might otherwise be sympathetic to their cause, who are now mobilised in terms of protesting, but may take issue with being told what to do and think?

The numbers on the march suggest many people taking part in a political march for the first time

This part particularly interests me. This is because for people who are not politically active and/or who don’t follow politics particularly closely, it takes a hell of a lot to agitate them into doing something active – irrespective of what the issue or cause is. (And irrespective of what the opinion of a person is). The experiences of Madeleina Kay show that opponents of the Remain cause can be just as motivated – think of those that have been protesting outside Parliament on an almost daily basis.  What we don’t know yet is what impact if any the experience of taking part in such a large demonstration today, will have on local elections coming up in early May.

No one political party or faction appearing to ‘dominate’ the march

One of the things Labour and the trade unions know how to do is to organise marches. With some of our local activists in Cambridge it’s almost like clockwork – knowing which of the authorities to inform and when, how to go about recruiting stewards, training them up and ensuring they are properly attired so that the public know who is in charge of the route. They actually make something very difficult to organise look relatively easy. But things like stewards, and electricity supplies for sound systems, and ensuring someone is filming speeches for social and local media doesn’t happen by themselves.

While lots of Labour branches were present – and with good reason, so to were the Liberal Democrats – along with one or two noticeably large Green Party contingents plus clumps of Independent Group, Women’s Equality Party and Conservatives Against Brexit marchers. There were also many who chose to march under the pro-EU banner of their local towns, staying away from party politics altogether.

Have any of the political parties looked ahead to beyond the end of the summer?

For example, what will the legislative programme of the government look like in the Queen’s Speech in the autumn? Because there has to be one. And it looks less and less likely that Theresa May will be heading that government responsible for it. Who knows – we may even have a general election between now and then.

There are challenges for both Labour and the Conservatives. For Labour, the emergence of The Independent Group means a further set of seats to win back for the party on the back of the huge decline of the Scottish Labour Party since the general election of 2010. That said, it’s not clear how many of the Independent Group MPs have strong enough personal loyalties in their own constituencies to enable them to hold onto their seats in the face of not just opposition from their former party, but other political parties too. One of the risks being that a split in the Labour vote lets in a third party. In Cambridge in 1987, this is exactly what happened. While the city was turning away from its long time Conservative tradition, the split in the progressive vote between Labour’s popular councillor Chris Howard, and the SDP’s Shirley Williams (A former Labour Cabinet Minister a decade previously) enabled incumbent MP Robert Rhodes James for the Tories to hold onto his seat with 21,000 votes. (The combined Labour + SDP total came to over 30,000 votes). It would be another five years before Cambridge got its first woman MP in Labour’s Anne Campbell.

The Tories are all over the place in Westminster – the convention of the collective responsibility of ministers in Government has gone. the organisation representing big businesses, the CBI, has stated publicly that ‘it has lost the confidence of the political class’. Saying that about Mr Corbyn is one thing – predictable almost. Saying it about a Conservative Government is quite another. Given the various statements ministers present and recent past have made in the face of Brexit, it’s hard to see which individual/s can regain the confidence of their business support base quickly enough in time for a general election.

The cleanup operation of politics and democracy once the dust has settled

For a start, I expect there to be a Leveson-style public inquiry into the circumstances of the UK leaving the EU. I expect the powers and the scope to be wide-ranging, covering individual ministers & decision-makers, departments of state, regulatory bodies and civic organisations. I expect it to go into detail on shortcomings in law and enforcement, and on intelligence gathering as well. I expect such a report to be comprehensive as it will be damning of individuals and institutions. At the same time, it might be just what is needed to help restore some trust in our institutions.